The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (CCDC) was established in 1965 to record numerical, chemical and bibliographic data relating to published organic and metal–organic crystal structures. The Cambridge Structural Database (CSD) now stores data for nearly 700 000 structures and is a comprehensive and fully retrospective historical archive of small-molecule crystallography. Nearly 40 000 new structures are added each year. As X-ray crystallography celebrates its centenary as a subject, and the CCDC approaches its own 50th year, this article traces the origins of the CCDC as a publicly funded organization and its onward development into a self-financing charitable institution. Principally, however, we describe the growth of the CSD and its extensive associated software system, and summarize its impact and value as a basis for research in structural chemistry, materials science and the life sciences, including drug discovery and drug development. Finally, the article considers the CCDC’s funding model in relation to open access and open data paradigms.